The convention singer as spiritual transistor

A trove of what appear to be new Stamps Baxter singing school videos have recently been uploaded to YouTube and will more than reward your time (h/t, KC; “new” insofar as very few people had viewed them as of this a.m. and I don’t recall having seen versions of them before; look for videos with an upload date of May 31, 2011).  Here’s one from 2005:

And another from 2010:

As usual the piano work here is as much (or more) of the attraction for me than the singing, though I hasten to add that that’s not a swipe at the singing. Indeed, I’ve just spent a weekend at a conference on the study of religion in America, and one of the issues that came up repeatedly focused on the importance of understanding religious experience as deeply connected with the physical worlds we live in, inhabit, physically, as individuals and groups. Perhaps that sounds pretty self-evident, but in matters of things divine and supernatural, it’s also true that  abstractions too often displace serious treatment of the lived contexts in which religious experience happens.

So, for instance, it is, of course, true that one way to talk about the better moments in these kinds of videos - which typically fall toward the middle and end of the pieces - is as evidence of that the group is becoming more familiar with the notes on the page and their ability to translate what they see into something we can hear. In other words, we use the language of form and content analysis that is pretty common around here and speak of technical skills associated with sight-singing in the shape-note tradition manifesting themselves in musical performance.

And this way of approaching and understanding the music is, undoubtedly, true. But early this morning in the Indianapolis airport, feeling the transport of different musical moments in these clips sweep over and through me (all the more powerful for its contrast to the existentially dismal world of an international airport in the pre-dawn hours), it occurred to me that another way to talk about these moments is as the merging of discrete religious experiences into a coalescent expression of faith and feeling far greater than its constituent parts. Actually, my exact response was to laugh out loud for the sheer gobsmacking goodness of several moments, but I had a three hour plane ride to translate that laugh into something a little more concrete. No, these aren’t always the most lyrically or even musically sophisticated songs you could find, as some commenters here have pointed out before, but what distinguishes this music, it seems to me, is the embodied and felt experience made possible from the available musical materials.

In the singing convention setting, people don’t just sing their notes in a virtual isolation booth that effectively walls them off from their neighbors or the accompanist or the audience … or, above all, the gospel sound itself. Rather the individual is - ideally at least - in the process of losing a certain of part of the ordinary (and ordinarily essential) boundaries that keep the world at bay, help keep individual identity intact. And as those barriers break down, as the notes come easier, as the singing self starts to dissolve - just a little - and sight-singing gives way to music making, a great flowing feeling of soul-soaring graciousness seems to both descend to and immanent  emanate from you at the same time and … well, it strikes me as rather like the convention singer coming into being as a kind of musical spiritual transistor.

Turn your radio on, indeed.

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  1. rr wrote:

    Nice article, and great convention clips.

    One question. I’m very appreciative of your ability to express things so meaningfully, but you said “seems to both descend to and immanent from you . . .” Did you possibly mean “emanate”, since “immanent” is not a verb?

  2. Eugene McCammon wrote:

    Thanks for posting the song from the S-B School of 2005. I am thrilled that my handsomeness has endured to this very day.

    Eugene McCammon

  3. Stephen Shearon wrote:

    Yes, yes, and yes (however many are necessary).

    Doug, just came back from a conference in Chattanooga on the history of music education (which most who were there are trying to revise). Lots of talk about shape notes and singing schools. Charles Towler and granddaughter Brianna were there at times.

    Worth noting: Today is the beginning of the summer shape-note singing school season. The Alabama School of Gospel Music begins today at Snead State Comm. Coll. in Boaz, Alabama (on Sand Mountain). There’s also a Church of Christ school that begins today (I think) in a church in Alva, Oklahoma, out in the northwest part of the state, on the plains.

    Not sure you and all heard, but Charles Towler was awarded recently the Folklife Heritage Award by the Governor of the state of Tennessee–one of the Governor’s Arts Awards.


  4. Stephen Shearon wrote:

    Eugene, I’m sure you know that your handsomeness is apparent to one and all — as is your droll humor!

    I only wonder what Barbara says about it.

  5. Sonda Leonard wrote:

    Your first clip not only indeed celebrates the enduring handsomeness and directing prowess of the great Eugene McCammon (who I dare say is one of the best lyricists in the singing convention genre) but also is a timely commemoration of songwriting great Harold Lane, who passed away today. Many know him for Southern Gospel standards such as “Touring That City” and “The Next Time He Comes,” but Harold was a prolific convention writer and I count his “Well Done My Child” as one of my all-time favorites. It was in the songbook used during my first year of Stamps-Baxter School of Music in 1990, when I first experienced the wonder of convention singing and piano playing and this rendition brings back very fond memories. Thank you.

  6. Ode wrote:

    1, Spellchecker went naughty on him, prbbly. In an airport your brain shuts down to just a few operating cells, I know experientially. btw, is the noun “breakdown” legit there, Avi ? shouldnt it be “break down”? Beautiful piece, I so love choirs… And thanks for BTC link in the prev post,too.

    2,:) Yes,you are still drop dead handsome,Sir - just smile much more often and you’ll remain a ladykiller as long as you have a pulse.Would you or some other kind soul help me find CD’s with these songs from videos:
    Heavens glory side
    What a happy time

    I teach church dance class,some SG songs have this perfect folksy groove -made for praise dancing.Those 2 songs are perfect for swing moves.

  7. Melvin Klaudt wrote:

    Just good ole Southern Gospel Singing. Mom and Dad Speer would probably turn over in their grave if they knew people were dancing to their singing.

  8. ode wrote:

    #7, Mel, you mean “Mom” n “Dad” were so naïve about the way life works, they didn’t know THEIR music made puritans and their own grandparents roll in their respective graves?

    Or hated God so much they disrespected His own commands to praise him in dance if one is able to? They weren’t actually Christian?

    Sad,if so. Let’s hope God had mercy and saved The dirty sinners e Mom and Dad Speer - and all of us :)None is perfect.

  9. ode wrote:

    Avery, what, I won the Queen contest already ? we must be legally married now- you already ignoring all I am saying :D “as barriers breakdown” is not wrong, breakdown is not a verb. Barries break down, or rise up, etc..
    anyway, thanx for reminder,MK, I forgot the links, if those versions are released on CD

    prbbly not, but if they are, plz post.

  10. Extra Ink wrote:

    Some of the best Southern Gospel music being written today comes from the convention songbooks….unfortunately, almost all of it is falling way under the radar of the industry.

  11. Logan Pettis wrote:

    Hey Eugene…A Buddhist walks up to a hotdog stand and says….

    Love Stamps-Baxter!!! Thanks for posting :D

  12. Janice Gregory wrote:

    Eugene, of the many knowledgable and dry witted men I have ever known and call my friend, I just read that now they are talking about your handsomeness. I always heard a man grows more distinguished with age. I will say I never was around a more delightful person, and always was just waiting for what funny remark he had to add to any subject. But I always found him to be a wonderful Chrisitan friend, whom all admired and loved. You are a fine looking man, but it is your lovely wife’s Barbara to keep your ego built up in that area. I feel sure each time you walk into the same room she is in, her legs still grow weak and her heart beats a little faster. But, May God always richly bless you for being such a kind friend to me, and a role model in front of my 2 sons, and myself and Jeff feel we are lucky to call you our friend

  13. Ode wrote:

    Janice, while at it, teach Eugene some manners - his mama or whomever brought him up clearly failed to do that :D

    When people here - or anywhere- give you a compliment, Eugene McCammon, its polite to say “thank you”, remember that, kiddo.

    And when someone asks you a quesiton its polite to answer, even if with just
    “Sorry, I dont know.” Don’t just come here bragging about yourself.

    I, for one, withraw my compliment to him. Rude people are not handsome.

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